Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Sir Thomas Brisbane
23 July 1773 – 27 January 1860
Sir Thomas Brisbane
Major-General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, 1st Baronet, GCH, GCB, FRS, FRSE was Governor of New South Wales (1821–25), as recommended by the Duke of Wellington, with whom he had seen military service.
A keen astronomer, he built Australia’s first observatory and encouraged scientific and agricultural training.
Brisbane was born at Brisbane House in Noddsdale, near Largs in Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Sir Thomas Brisbane and Dame Eleanora Brisbane. He was educated in astronomy and mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. He joined the British Army the 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot in 1789 and had a distinguished career in Flanders, the West Indies, Spain and North America. He served under the Duke of Wellington, and in 1813 he was promoted to Major-General. He saw much action during the Peninsular War, including leading a brigade in the 3rd Division that broke through at the Battle of Vitoria.
He continued as a brigade commander in the War of 1812, where in 1814 he led a brigade at the Battle of Plattsburgh, which Brisbane claimed they could have won if they had been allowed to launch a full infantry attack. For his services in the Peninsula, Brisbane received the Army Gold Cross with one clasp for the battles of Vitoria, the Pyrenees, Nivelle, Orthez, and Toulouse; and the silver war medal with one clasp for the Nive.
In November 1819 he married Anna Maria Hay.
In 1821, on the recommendation of Wellington, Brisbane was appointed Governor of New South Wales, a post he held until 1825. Brisbane took over the government in December 1821, and at once proceeded to carry out some of the reforms recommended in the report of John Thomas Bigge. While Governor he tackled the many problems of a rapidly growing and expanding colony.
He worked to improve the land grants system and to reform the currency. Brisbane’s keen interest in science led him to accept the invitation to become the first President of the Philosophical Society of Australasia that later became the Royal Society of New South Wales, the oldest learned institution in the Southern Hemisphere. He also set up the first agricultural training college in New South Wales and was the first patron of the New South Wales Agricultural Society. He conducted experiments in growing tobacco, cotton, coffee and New Zealand flax in the colony.
However, Brisbane did not always receive loyal support from his administrative officers, and in particular from Frederick Goulburn, the colonial secretary. A reference to Brisbane’s dispatch to Earl Bathurst dated 14 May 1825 shows that Bigge’s recommendations had been carefully considered, and that many improvements had been made. Brisbane did not limit his attention to Bigge’s report. Early in April 1822 he discovered with some surprise the ease with which grants of land had hitherto been obtained. He immediately introduced a new system under which every grant had the stipulation that for every 100 acres (400,000 m2) granted the grantee would maintain free of expense to the crown one convict labourer. He also encouraged agriculture on government land, streamlined granting of tickets of leave and pardons and introduced, in 1823, a system of calling for supplies by tender. When Dr. Robert Wardell and William Wentworth brought out their paper the Australian in 1824, Brisbane tried the experiment of allowing full latitude of the freedom of the press.
In 1823 Brisbane sent Lieutenant John Oxley to find a new site for convicts who were repeat offenders. Oxley discovered a large river flowing into Moreton Bay. A year later, the first convicts arrived at Moreton Bay. Brisbane visited the settlement in December 1824. Oxley suggested that both the river and the settlement be named after Brisbane. The convict settlement was declared a town in 1834 and opened to free settlement in 1839.
Brisbane was doing useful work, but he could not escape the effects of the constant faction fights which also plagued previous governors. Consequently, charges of various kinds against Brisbane were sent to England. The worst of these, that he had connived at sending female convicts to Emu Plains for immoral purposes, was investigated by William Stewart, the lieutenant-governor, John Stephen, assistant judge, and the Rev. William Cowper, senior assistant-chaplain, and found to be without the slightest foundation. Brisbane discovered that Goulburn, the colonial secretary, had been withholding documents from him and answering some without reference to the governor, and in 1824 reported his conduct to Lord Bathurst. In reply, Bathurst recalled both the governor and the colonial secretary in dispatches dated 29 December 1824.
Brisbane left Sydney in December 1825 and returned to Scotland. In 1826 he added the name of Makdougall before Brisbane, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman and took interest in science, his estate, and his regiment. He was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1832) in succession to Sir Walter Scott, and in 1836 he was created a baronet. In the same year he was offered the command of the troops stationed in Canada and two years later the chief command in India, but declined both. He continued his astronomical researches, and did valuable work.
He was the first patron of science in Australia, and as such was eulogised by Sir John Herschel when he presented Brisbane with the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. Oxford and Cambridge Universities gave him the honorary degree of DCL, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Societies of both London and Edinburgh. He was created KCB in 1814 and GCB in 1837.
Brisbane was a keen astronomer throughout his career. He had an observatory built at his ancestral home in 1808. From this observatory he was able to contribute to the advances in navigation which took place over the next hundred years. He took all his instruments and two astronomical assistants, Carl Ludwig Christian Rümker and James Dunlop to New South Wales with him, first properly equipped Australian observatory at Parramatta. While waiting for Macquarie to complete his final arrangements, interested himself in making astronomical observations. In 1822 he established an observatory at Parramatta west of Sydney. In 1828 he won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He published The Brisbane Catalogue of 7,385 stars of the Southern Hemisphere in 1835. The Observatory was used until 1855.
When Brisbane returned to Scotland he continued his studies and built a further observatory on his wife’s estate, Makerstoun, near Kelso in the Borders. He was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and received their Keith Prize in 1848. He was elected president in 1833 after the death of Sir Walter Scott, and in the following year acted as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He founded a gold medal for the encouragement of scientific research to be awarded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Brisbane died much respected and honoured on 27 January 1860 in Largs. His four children predeceased him. He is buried in the Brisbane Aisle Vault, which is in the small kirkyard next to Skelmorlie Aisle, Largs Old Kirk.
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